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People Pleasing & Boundary Setting: Ask a Therapist

January 17, 2022


Dr Kelly Ray

Meet Dr. Ray! Dr. Kelly Ray is a clinical psychologist and owner of a group private practice in the greater Chicago area. Kelly holds a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology and has 20 years of experience as a provider of psychotherapy.  She specializes in anxiety, eating/body image concerns, mood issues, the challenges of busy working parents, and parenting dilemmas. Off the “clock,” Kelly lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and two middle-school aged daughters, who have learned to make use of her other talent…as a chauffeur.

We recently asked you, the LIY Community, to anonymously submit any questions you may have for Dr. Ray – and quite literally, Ask a Therapist! Below, you’ll find a few of the questions asked and the responses directly from Dr. Ray herself. Our hope is that you might relate to other women in the LIY Community and benefit from hearing [or in this case, reading] the advice Dr. Ray offers.

The last time we featured Dr. Ray, she shared insight about Marriage + Relationships and Anxiety + Medication. You can read the previous post here. Today we’re focusing on people pleasing and setting boundaries – something I believe [especially as women!], a lot of us struggle with and could benefit from learning a little bit more about. So without further ado, here’s Dr. Kelly Ray!

PS. If you would like to submit a question for Dr. Ray to potentially be used in a future post, you can do so here! Don’t worry, it is 100% anonymous. We promise.

*Disclaimer: The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for psychotherapy. If you are in immediate crisis or have serious mental health concerns, please contact your physician and/or seek care from your local Emergency Room department.

Boundary Setting

Q: My mother-in-law is very passive aggressive. She will wait until she has me alone to ask questions about holidays and birthdays, hoping to get me to go along with the plan she wants. How do I answer politely and also get her to stop doing this?  How do we handle competing sets of grandparents (e.g., gift giving, who gets to take the grandkids to Disney first, etc.)?

A: Let’s broaden the lens on your mother-in-law’s behavior for a second.  There might be other ways to read her actions that are worthy for us to consider. For one, she might feel comfortable approaching you directly about making plans, because she feels close enough to do so.  Second, she might also recognize that, in many marriages, the wife tends to be the social director.  In this case, your MIL may have decided to be efficient by going right to the source regarding your family’s social plans and availability.

What can make this interaction feel passive-aggressive is feeling caught off-guard or otherwise uncertain about how to respond to your mother-in-law, especially when your husband is not around to be included in the interaction. If you are uncertain or remain uncomfortable, involve your  husband when asked to make plans.  In this case, graciously acknowledge your MIL’s idea (i.e., letting her know that the plan sounds like fun) and indicate that you/she should ask your husband (a.k.a. her son) about whether this plan will be possible for your family.

With time, you might feel more comfortable making plans directly with your mother-in-law…or you may continue to include your husband.  Either way is fine.  The important piece is that there is an effort made — by both your mother-in-law and you — to keep your relationship positive for the sake of the other relationships involved.

As for the relationships between sets of grandparents, we have now added another layer to the boundary situation.  Grandparents who may be competing for the “best” or the “first” bring up two possible boundary crossings:  1. unnecessarily competing with each other as grandparents and 2. losing sight of the primary family here — the family made up of you, your husband, and your children.

Nobody benefits when either set of grandparents is aware of gifts given by the other set.  To the extent that keeping this exchange between the gift giver and the recipient is possible, competition between grandparents can be kept to a minimum.  Sure, one of your kids might proudly say, “Look what Gigi gave me,” but that comment can be left alone without further discussion.  In all other instances, remember that each set of grandparents will feel a sense of warmth and pride in their gestures if they are not aware of how it matches up against gifts from the other.

When it comes to other “firsts,” don’t forget the value of doing many firsts with your own family — that which involves, you, your husband, and your kids. Should you choose to invite one set of grandparents to Disney, for example, consider inviting the other to accompany your family on a different special occasion.

At the end of the day, all involved grandparents simply want to spend time with their kids and grandkids.  There is nothing more pure than that.  It is up to you and your husband how to create opportunities for warmth, connection, and fun that can extend among the generations.

*This information is not intended to be a substitute for psychotherapy or a consultation with a licensed health provider.  If you are experiencing an urgent health concern, please go to your local Emergency Department.

People Pleasing

Q: I have lived my whole life being a “people pleaser.”  I tend to be more worried about making others happy over meeting my own needs.  Could you share some tips for not feeling guilty when saying ‘no’?

A: It is fantastic that you can recognize your tendency to please others — and that you are looking for change.  In addition to feeling guilty, people-pleasers often wonder if they will still be liked if they don’t always say ‘yes’ or give the other what they want.  The short answer is YES.  While it is probably wise to anticipate a reaction from the other when you first begin to express your needs, please do not confuse this reaction for frustration, anger, or falling out of favor.

In relationships that have some history behind them, patterns develop.  When the other person senses that you are behaving in a manner that breaks from your usual pattern, it is a natural consequence for them to react.  A change coming from you naturally requires a forthcoming change from them, which can prompt the other to hesitate as they decide how best to respond.

To begin establishing a new, more fulfilling pattern in your relationships:

  • Identify your need in advance — Before approaching the other, give yourself time to reflect on naming your need and what it means to you.  Keeping the significance of your need front and center can motivate you to protect the need.
  • Plan for some negotiation and know where your bottom line is — Recognize where you are willing to compromise on your need and where it will feel like a boundary is being crossed.  Be prepared to say that you can’t do it if it is moving into boundary-crossing territory.
  • State your need in a matter-of-fact manner — Longer explanations can appear defensive and lose their credibility.  You want to convey confidence and a sense that you are certain of your wishes.  Doing so succinctly will help to get your point across in an impactful way.
  • Offer positive reinforcement to the other — Expressing gratitude or appreciation (“thank you” or “that’s great!”) will generate good vibes between you.  It also puts a positive sense of closure on a new type of interaction between you, paving the way for more positive interactions to come.

Creating a new pattern in relationships where you were once “the pleaser” requires effort to break this bad habit, so make sure to show yourself patience and self-compassion.  Like with most things, practice makes pretty-close-to perfect.  You may stumble the first few times you work to advocate for yourself.  Trust that each time you do, you become closer to your end goa and to a version of you that is more fulfilled and self-assured.

*This information is not intended to be a substitute for psychotherapy or a consultation with a licensed health provider.  If you are experiencing an urgent health concern, please go to your local Emergency Department.

And that’s a wrap! PS. If you would like to submit a question for Dr. Ray to potentially be used in a future post, you can do so here! Don’t worry, it is 100% anonymous. We promise. Thanks for reading!

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